Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

Rugby: Dream of Sevens gold looks shaky as rivals beef up

Without hoped-for stars, NZ only good outside bet for glory in Rio.
Sonny Bill Williams is the only big hitter to put his hand up for the Sevens in Rio. Picture / Getty Images
Sonny Bill Williams is the only big hitter to put his hand up for the Sevens in Rio. Picture / Getty Images

New Zealand's Olympic dream of taking Sevens gold in Rio this year appears to be on shakier ground than it was 12 months ago when a host of best players were on the verge of committing to the abbreviated game.

A targeted recruitment drive failed to persuade Ben Smith, Julian Savea, Malakai Fekitoa and Beauden Barrett to sign up to Sevens and without the star names New Zealand are no more than a good outside bet to bring a medal home from Brazil.

Sitting third on the World Series table and with five tournaments left, the situation is not desperate or beyond salvaging. A victory this weekend in Vancouver will cut the gap between New Zealand and leaders Fiji and South Africa.

But victories have proven hard to come by and that's not likely to change. It's just as easy to see New Zealand finishing sixth as it is for them to be first.

In what feels like no time at all, the competition has changed beyond recognition with as many as 10 countries capable of winning tournaments. This became obvious when Kenya then the USA won events in 2014 and last year.

New Zealand Rugby are looking at a picture that they forecast some time ago.

They were aware the elevation of Sevens to the Olympics would see a host of countries pump more funding into their programmes and intensify the competition.

What they also forecast with some degree of confidence when they decided to make winning a gold medal at Rio a strategic priority, was that a number of high-profile All Blacks would commit to playing Sevens.

That's what had happened in the past in Commonwealth Games years - the lure was too much for some All Blacks to resist. The Olympics, it was thought, would have even greater allure and the squad would be bolstered by game-changing athletes such as Savea, Smith and Barrett.

The picture hasn't transpired that way, though, and not only has the competition intensified beyond all predictions, New Zealand, other than Sonny Bill Williams, haven't landed the big fish they wanted.

"There is no doubt that a number of countries feel that an Olympic opportunity is more attractive than it was four or five years ago and more resource is being applied," says New Zealand Rugby chief executive Steve Tew.

"There is no better reflection of that than the USA. A number of teams, including ourselves, are finding it hard to be as consistent as we were. From a World Rugby point of view it's a good thing for the series to be this competitive. Are we comfortable with where we are at? We want to win and our goal is to win gold at Rio. Have we done enough ... on balance I think we have."

The balance that Tew talks about is the need to continue to produce a winning All Blacks team this year. Because NZR is chasing two effectively competing dreams, the country's leading players were given the choice about Sevens rather than be forced into it.

While Tew doesn't want to say publicly how he feels about the mass rejection of the union's ambition, he remains hopeful that things will be different in 2020.

"The key is to remember it was the athletes' choice," he says. "We got a lot of people over a long period of time to work out what was best way to frame it. We took money out so no one was worse off. There would be no financial imposition to playing Sevens.

"We categorised things so some players would have to commit fully and others would play some. The players were able to think it over and I know that for most of them it was an incredibly hard decision to make.

"I do believe that we will have a significant uptake at the next Olympics."

- NZ Herald

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